SALT LAKE CITY — Utah universities and their international students grappling with uncertainty about fall semester found relief Tuesday with the reversal of a Trump administration policy that would have forced some out of the country if classes are conducted only online.
Facing opposition from hundreds of universities and a handful of federal lawsuits, the Trump administration rescinded a July directive that would have required students on F-1 or M-1 visas to leave the U.S. or transfer to another college if their university is entirely remote for fall semester due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Excellent news: The administration has rescinded the new rule that would have revoked visas for international students whose classes will be online this fall — a huge relief for our students. I appreciate the collaboration with our academic peers on this,” University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins said on Twitter Tuesday afternoon.
On Monday afternoon, the university became part of a coalition of 20 other schools in the western U.S. to file a lawsuit seeking a “temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and permanent injunction” to stop the directive from being enforced. Last week, the university joined Weber State University, Utah State University and Westminster College in an amicus brief filed by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration in support of a lawsuit by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“International students are a vital part of the University of Utah community, expanding the academic experience in our classrooms and laboratories for all students, faculty and staff,” Watkins said in a press release. “This misguided public policy shows disregard for these students and has caused significant fear and anxiety during an already difficult time for students who are committed to completing their degrees.”
The policy would have also required students attending universities that adopt a hybrid model — in-person and online classes — to take at least one class in-person if they want to stay in the U.S.
The rule was rescinded Tuesday afternoon at the start of a hearing in the federal lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs said federal immigration authorities agreed to pull the July 6 directive and “return to the status quo.”
Chris Nelson, communications director for the University of Utah, said the reversal of the directive has been met with a surge of relief.
The university is planning for a hybrid model this fall, and he said the directive “caused a great deal of concern and fear” for its 3,000 international students.
“These are students that are trying to finish their education, get through school and to have to leave the country would have been very difficult,” he said.
During normal times, international students are generally barred from taking a certain number of online courses, however Immigration and Customs Enforcement waived that rule in March as campuses across the U.S. closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We fully expect to get back to that after the pandemic clears one day, but until then extraordinary circumstances call for compassion and flexibility,” Nelson said.
He said he hopes that the fact that universities and colleges came together to speak out against the directive made an impact in “in helping people understand what international students mean to a university like Utah.”
“The whole purpose of higher ed is to bring people together and expose people to different perspectives and different backgrounds,” Nelson said.
Yimin Wang, senior international officer at Weber State University, said she is relieved by the news. About 300 international students attend the school.
Since the directive was issued July 6, Wang said the Office of International Programs has been working with international students and the academic departments to ensure no student will have to leave the country because of the policy. The university hosted town hall meetings with international students every day last week to answer questions and provide support for those struggling to digest the news.
“We are proud that Weber State is one of these 180 universities that made this happen for all our international students,” she said about joining the amicus brief supporting the Harvard and MIT lawsuit. “International students are valuable members of our Weber State University community. We will continue to work with colleges and departments to provide the best possible support for our international students.”
Utah State University President Noelle E. Cockett noted in a news release that “our international students are among our best and brightest students, and, more important today, they are our dear friends who bring critical cultural diversity and understanding to our entire student body.”
The northern Utah campus has more than 400 international students.
BYU announced last week that in light of the directive, administration is “actively exploring options for supporting our international students.” An email was sent to the students explaining how they can be protected from potential deportation and asserting their importance to the BYU community.
Todd Hollingshead, media relations manager for BYU, said the directive caused “great concern and anxiety” for international students.
“We are pleased to see the guidance was rescinded today and we are glad that our international students can return their focus to the fall semester,” he said.
Diego Calderon, a BYU student from Peru, said following the initial announcement he felt supported by professors who said they’d work with students to ensure they had at least one in-person class option. However, he and other international students were worried about what would happen to them after Thanksgiving when BYU shifted into an entirely online format.
Calderon said international students are “very, very happy” with the reversal of the directive, but are still somewhat cautious. He said he doesn’t “want to put all my eggs in one basket” and will hold off on signing an apartment contract for the time being in case things change for international students again.
Contributing: Associated Press